Batak Toba language

Language family: Austronesian, Malayo-Polynesian
Sumatra Batak
Batak Toba

Total speakers: 2,000,000

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The Batak Toba language is an Austronesian language that originates from Northern Sumatra, in Indonesia, mostly west of Lake Toba. There are approximately 2,000,000 speakers worldwide. There is a traditional Batak Toba script alphabet referenced below.

Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk was involved in translating the Bible into Toba Batak.

Name of the language

The name of this language arises from a complex history of ethnic identity in colonial and post-colonial Indonesia. Some refer to the language as "Toba Batak" and others, as "Batak Toba." The two orders have different meanings, and one may be considered more polite than the other.

The term Batak refers to a population larger than that which exclusively speaks Batak Toba. There are seven Batak languages attributed to this population. The term Toba refers to the geography surrounding and to the west of Lake Toba. So, whether one prefers to describe the language as "Batak Toba" or "Toba Batak" depends upon whether one intends to depict the geography by the language, or the people by the geography. Both orders are technically correct since they describe the same language, but the inflections are distinctly different.

To complicate matters for English speakers, the Batak Toba language itself uses a reverse noun-adjective descension order. That is, the second noun descends to adjective form and the first remains a noun. Thus in the language itself, the second noun descends to adjective form and the first remains a noun. Hence the term "Batak Toba" refers to a population by their geography of origination. To some, that is more polite than the term "Toba Batak" which seemingly refers to a Geography by the type of people who originated there. But in light of the noun-adjective reversal in English, importance of noun order is lost amid the reversals and it becomes difficult to ascertain which order seems more polite. But to a speaker of the language, the order matters.

Batak script

The Berkeley Script Encoding Initiative (accuracy challenged),, states that

  • the script is written from left to right, or vertically upon bamboo
  • in most Batak communities only the datu (priests) are able to read and write script where it is mainly used for producing calendars and magical incantations

The Unicode Consortium described the Batak script in a first technical report proposal for computer coding of the Batak Toba Language at One must search the file for the term ("Batak") to find the reference; there are no page numbers. The Consortium referred to Neubronner van der Tuuk, H.: A Grammar of Toba Batak (1971; translated version of the original: Tobasche spraakkunst, 1864-1867, 2 vols.).

Unicode notes that the phonetic system of the script is similar to the scripts of the Philippines (Tagalog).




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